During my early twenties I would find myself, once a month, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, a pair of scissors in my hand, feeling hot, nervy and extremely unattractive, giving myself a slightly strange haircut.
It was only after moving in with my then-boyfriend, who witnessed this routine, that something clicked. One evening he walked into the bathroom and bravely said: “Are you getting your period?” Turns out, I was. He noticed a pattern that I’d fail to spot: that I’d been giving myself an unflattering trim every month in response to a premenstrual change in hormones that, somehow, I’d never recognised. Because it’s hard to do so, especially when you’re caught up in a maelstrom of emotions that you don’t quite understand.
Ever since that lightbulb moment, I’ve learnt to pay attention to my moods and cycles, and in doing so, I’ve learned to treat myself with more kindness. And it’s a revelation.
For too long, the word ‘hormone’ has been used as either a lazy punchline or a cruel jibe; a somehow shameful or ridiculous thing associated with wild women, loss of control, irrationality and hot flushes. But that, at last, is changing. Books like Sara Gottfried’s The Hormone Cure and Martie Haselton’s Hormonal: The Hidden Intelligence of Hormones have put hormones back at the top of the bestseller list, while over 200 million people have downloaded period tracker apps worldwide. We now appreciate that hormones, the chemicals designed to send messages to cells throughout your body to regulate everything from sleep to blood pressure, will have a knock-on effect on almost all aspects of your physical and mental health. The great wave of femtech, from testing kits to tracking apps, has finally given women the ability to record, analyse and then predict the cyclical changes in their hormone levels that occur, not just monthly but daily, weekly and on the grander scale of year to year.
As the author and journalist Eleanor Morgan, whose book Hormonal will be out next year, puts it: “It certainly feels like there is a reclaiming of the very notion of hormones – a word that, for so long, has been shrouded in the historical shame, mystery and monstrosity of the 'hysterical' woman. That stigma is something we've turned inwards, too; if we focus too much on how our inherent femaleness can make us feel, we might feel we're undoing some of the equality we've fought for as women.
“This is changing. The proliferation of 'femtech' and the success of books in this area speaks of a growing desire to get to know ourselves better; to make sense of these cycles that we often feel control our mood, physical health and productivity, and instead find a way of accepting and 'working with' our ever-changing selves.”
There are some common hormone patterns that are useful to look out for. Low levels of progesterone in the run-up to your period can make it harder to sleep; a testosterone spike and plunging drop in their oestrogen levels halfway through your cycle can lead to oily skin and acne breakouts, while a drop in oestrogen and progesterone, which have receptors in the gastrointestinal tract, are linked to bloating, nausea, constipation or diarrhoea.
According to Dr Anne MacGregor, formerly of the National Migraine Centre, more than half of women who get migraines notice a link with their periods. These so-called "menstrual migraines" are most likely to develop in either the two days leading up to a period or the first two days during a period, because of the natural drop in oestrogen.
The truly revealing discoveries, however, come when you note down your own personal hormone data: your mood, your appetite, your libido, how your skin and hair feel, whether you feel bloated, anxious, when you have more energy, when you’re more likely to pick fights. A friend of mine regularly talks about her ‘day 21 shellshock’ when her hormones are at a peak. Since I started using a period tracker app a few years ago, I have noticed a dramatic drop in the number of home haircuts I give myself, for a start.
Once you start to take note and take notice of your own changes in mood, body and behaviour it can bring order to what felt like chaos, bring calm where before you knew only uncertainty, give you a genuine understanding of what you need day-to-day.
Once you know that you tend to feel weepy in the run-up to your period, it will be less scary when you find yourself crying at a cereal advert. If you find that you often have more energy around the time you ovulate, you can build that into your exercise routine. If all that testosterone at the start of your period makes you more decisive and assertive, you can then plan how best to harness it at work. With the Moody Month app you will be able to receive reports that chart the emotions and worries you log at certain times of the month, so you can start seeing patterns.
Of course, hormone levels are just one element in life’s bigger picture, along with diet, work pressure, sleep, alcohol, relationship changes and even the weather. So while noticing patterns can feel genuinely empowering, there’s no need to beat yourself up if one month you find yourself feeling low on a day you usually feel powerful. Sometimes just witnessing and noting down how you feel objectively can bring things into perspective. Bring you some sense of order. Bring you back in harmony with your body.
Word by Nell Frizzell
Now you can sync up with your moods and cycle, improve your down days and power up your best, download the Moody Month app!